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Tortoise with its egg emerges from Pompeii digs in surprise find

Intact after 2,000 years, 'site trove of history' says Culture Minister Franceschini

(By Silvia Lambertucci).

(ANSA) - ROME, JUN 24 - The shell almost unscathed, the head intact like the tail and one of the feet. A small land tortoise, incredibly preserved with its never-laid egg, is the latest surprise from Pompeii that ANSA can describe in a sneak preview.
    The archaeologists found it at a depth of half a metre under the clay floor of a shop in the central Via dell'Abbondanza, where a joint survey by the Oriental University of Naples, Berlin's Freie Universitat and Oxford University is probing the remains of a luxury home that was demolished after the earthquake of 62 AD and incorporated into the Stabian baths.
    "Pompeii is a trove of history that fascinates the world," applauds Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.
    It is an important find, explains the director of the archaeological park, Gabriel Zuchtriegel, "which opens a window on the last years in the life of the city", those following the earthquake, "in which the whole of Pompeii was turned into one big pulsating building site".
    In this context, the director says, the town's ecosystem changes, with wild animals finding a place in the buildings going up or in shops like this, right in the heart of the city.
    The tortoise evidently got into the store-cum-tavern "and there, in a sheltered corner, it dug a nest to lay its egg in," says anthropologist Valeria Amoretti, "something which did not succeed and which may have caused its death".
    The research will now continue in the laboratory, but meanwhile, with the help, in the field, of students from the Neapolitan university, the floors and decorations of the magnificent house that originally occupied that space are returning to the light.
    It is a dwelling of great prestige, say Marco Giglio of the Oriental University and Monika Trumper of the university in Berlin, which stretched for over 900 square metres with its grand rooms and courtyards in a very central quarter of the city.
    It also features carpets of mosaics which in their complexity and beauty, the professors say, can be compared to those of the Villa of Mysteries or the House of Ceres, made precious by refined and rare drawings and designs that in some cases reproduce the wonders of Roman architecture, like the long aqueduct that appears on the floor of the tablinium.
    It is a marvel that the excavations of the last few weeks have restored, also through fragments of what it was: plinths in multi-coloured marble, a small, beautiful terracotta mask, and even a painted shell that must have been shown off to its best in some niche.
    Only two fragments remain of the walls, sadly, small but very impressive, with elaborate and richly coloured wall paintings in the II style, in fashion in the first century AD. And that is not all: in another corner of shop where the tortoise was found, in the spot where the entrance of the domus must have originally been, the archaeologists have found a votive trench, practically a hole dug on the occasion of the foundation of the house, with burned wooden remains and auspicious and placatory offerings for the gods.
    This was a very widespread practice in the Roman world, says Giglio, but which it has not been hitherto possible to study greatly in Pompeii. Among the charred remains there was also the broken olla that had contained the offerings, together with a small lamp. And it is from this, which dates back to the first century BC, Giglio explains, "that we got proof that this house was actually built in the first half of the first century BC".
    Perhaps immediately after 80 BC, he adds, when after Sulla's siege the city suffered the indignity of being turned into a Roman colony.
    There remains the mystery of who may have been its wealthy owner: perhaps a Roman higher-up, a high-ranking officer in the army or perhaps a Pompeian man who had supported Sulla? The professor does not come down on one side of the argument or another. "It was certainly an eminent figure in Pompeian life", he replies. "For now we cannot say more, let us hope that we will learn more in the next campaign of excavations, in 2023".
    As it also remains to be understood why, 150 years after its construction, this splendid abode was razed to the ground. In this case, too, we can only grasp at hypotheses: perhaps the earthquake had damaged it so much that it was too costly and inconvenient to restructure it; or perhaps, as has been documented in other cases in Pompeii, the fear endured in the earthquake persuaded the owners to move to a location they deemed safer. Or perhaps the family that built it may have fallen lower down the rungs of society in the meantime. What is certain at the moment is that all that luxury, with property market prices having plummeted after the quake, passed into the ownership of the city administration which put it at the disposal of the baths in which it was decided to invest a lot of money, building a big new bathing area equipped with running water, scenes of water nymphs, and ultra-modern and super-technological amenities for the time.
    Monika Trumper, the archaeologist who is an expert in baths and who heads the German group, has no doubts: "Here there was non-stop building and there was confidence in the future. "No one had any idea whatsoever of the catastrophe which would strike down on Pompeii just a short while later" (ANSA).


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